Tag: linguistics

Pronouncing English from Colombian Spanish

I was invited to help a Colombian Spanish-speaking adult with pronunciation in English. I veer “academic”, so I went looking for rigorous scientific phonetics and phonology resources. It turns out that there aren’t many.

Even so, I ended up creating some pronunciation resources for a Colombian Spanish speaker learning English as a second language. I want to save them in case they are ever useful to someone else (including future me!):

(It turned out these resources weren’t perfectly right for my speaker, unfortunately. For instance, her dialect uses the short i /ɪ/ sound like in “fit”, but more rarely uses the long i /i/ like in “feet”; many Spanish dialects are the opposite.)

Spanish-English minimal pairs

berry/very; bag/beg; hat/hut; hat/heart; heart/hot; heart/hut; heart/hurt; wait/wet; hey/hi; bear/beer; beat/bit; beg/bug; beg/big; bird/bored; bird/bud; pot/port; boat/bought; hope/hop; hole/howl; bill/pill; cheap/jeep; cherry/sherry; chart/tart; deep/jeep; dent/tent; day/they; dawn/thorn; fast/past; ferry/very; bag/back; heart/art; jaw/your; line/nine; long/wrong; sun/sung; bank/bang; rock/wok; seat/sheet; sing/thing; Sue/zoo; tin/thin; then/zen; verse/worse; Luke/look; sheep/ship; cot/caught; further/farther


  • Minimal pair memory
  • Decide whether “each item on my list is the same as the one on your list” where the 2 lists contain homophones, minimal pairs, etc. (fare/fair; fat/vat; …)
  • Stand up if two words are the same; stay seated if they’re different
  • Label each wall with a sound; listen to words and touch the appropriate wall
  • Write 2 columns of words in a shared space; pronounce a word from the list; ask whether it came from column 1 or 2; switch to student-led
  • R-controlled vowel bingo: rows for ɛ˞, ɑ˞, ɔ˞ (or maybe er/ir/ur/or/ar); columns for consonants of your choice; write in/pronounce words that use each cell to win a prize
  • Play the “MM-mm” syllable stress game: repeat the MM-mms to get native-like stress in words, and then build to sentences
  • Given a list of sentences with bolded stressed components, say them aloud and stand up quickly at stressed parts then sit back down (or raise hands, clap hands, tap table, etc.) – “I love coffee; I come here often; I don’t see it; Try this pizza!; He hurt his neck; etc.” – more at fluentu
  • Read a word, exaggerating the stressed syllable – then “echo” the word with a sentence that has a similar stress pattern (e.g., “interruption” –> “Let’s have lunch now”; “interruption” –> “He’s my uncle”; “interruption” –> “I said, under”; “interact” –> “It’s a fact”; “interact” –> “Here’s your hat”; “interact” –> “Where’s my snack?”) – more at fluentu
  • Use voice recognition on the phone to get independent feedback on interpretability

End-to-end neural networks for subvocal speech recognition

My final project for Stanford CS 224S was on subvocal speech recognition. This was my last paper at Stanford; it draws on everything I learned in a whirlwind of CS grad school without a CS undergraduate major. Pol Rosello provided the topic; he and I contributed equally to the paper.

We describe the first approach toward end-to-end, session-independent subvocal automatic speech recognition from involuntary facial and laryngeal muscle movements detected by surface electromyography. We leverage character-level recurrent neural networks and the connectionist temporal classification loss (CTC). We attempt to address challenges posed by a lack of data, including poor generalization, through data augmentation of electromyographic signals, a specialized multi-modal architecture, and regularization. We show results indicating reasonable qualitative performance on test set utterances, and describe promising avenues for future work in this direction.

Introduction to ASL Theoretical Linguistics

One of my favorite parts of studying linguistics was being presented with data and being asked to find the system within it. Language data, with linguistic theory’s insistence that everything must make sense, make the most excellent data and logic puzzles.

Screenshot of ASL Linguistics Problems

As part of preparing for a spatial grammar-heavy meeting of the Montgomery Blair High School Linguistics Club, I developed three American Sign Language morphology problems.  These problems illustrate interesting properties of American Sign Language that spoken languages do not have (non-manual markers, spatial agreement, and a rich temporal inflection system based in manual phonology).

Try your hand at doing the problems if you’re interested in any of the following:

  • What it means to do theoretical linguistics (or the sort of logic skills that linguists develop)
  • Unique properties of spatial languages
  • Basic American Sign Language linguistics
  • Similarities between American Sign Language and other world languages

Unlike most materials on ASL linguistics, the problems don’t assume that readers are fluent in American Sign Language or in linguistic theory — I developed these problems because I couldn’t find any resources aimed at an intelligent lay non-Deaf audience.  The problems deliberately walk users through the steps to answer a question, whereas most theoretical linguistics problem sets jump straight to the questions at hand and assume existing familiarity with linguistic features not observed in English.

Once the club and I meet, I’ll post the answer sheet as well.

Introduction to ASL Linguistics

During the discussion we focused on introducing different non-voiced communication forms and on linguistic anthropology/linguistic creativity.  We postponed theoretical linguistics until another time (in which we did some experiential learning on morphology). This page consists of a set of links, prepared videos, and notes designed to support real-time interaction with students at the linguistics club at Montgomery Blair High School.

The big take-away is that American Sign Language is not “English on the hands”.  ASL is independent from English both in grammar and linguistic culture.


  • Caveats for posterity: I’m hearing, I don’t possess native-like fluency in ASL, and I don’t have an advanced degree in this; I do have general and ASL linguistic training, I read widely, and I’m more or less aware of what I don’t know
  • What are some ways deaf people communicate? [YouTube]
  • Compare ASL structure [.avi | .ogv | .gif] with PSE structure [.avi | .ogv | .gif] with English structure [.txt]
  • Charts might help [fingerspelling: ASL | BSL | LSF] [cued speech]

Anthropological Linguistics

  • Big idea: Linguistic creativity
  • ABC stories [YouTube]
  • Sign jokes [King Kong, “please but”, environments, CODAs]
  • Music & poetry [YouTube]
    • Rhyme (handshape, movement path, location, non-manual markers)
    • Rhythm (movement, handedness)
    • Meter (heavy & light syllables)
  • Also, Black ASL [WaPo | HuffPost | YouTube (uncaptioned but 5:37 has a chart)]

Theoretical Linguistics [postponed]

  • Big idea: Spatial grammar
  • Basic structure
    • English consonants have place and manner of articulation, plus voicing [IPA chart]
      • Place of articulation (cat/tat/pat)
      • Manner of articulation (pat/bat/mat)
    • ASL signs have five “parameters”
      • Handshape (think/know) *
      • Location (summer/dry) *
      • Palm orientation (sock/star)
      • Movement (sit/chair) *
      • Nonmanual markers (late/not yet)
  • The movement piece is more complicated (Christian/Congress, one-handed children/die) –> movement-hold theory
    • M (always)
    • H (color, study)
    • M H (think, know, my, sit)
    • H M H (week, guess)
    • M H M H (Congress, flower)
    • M M M H (chair, school, paper)
    • Other structures are possible, but not any other structure (e.g., exclude H M)
  • Nonmanual markers are extremely important grammatical markers; they are frequently unrecognized by hearing people
    • Questions (yes-no/wh)
    • Rhetorical questions
    • Adjectives and adverbs (mm, th, cha, cs — more in a .doc)
    • Topicalization
  • Grammatical use of space of ASL (verb classes, classifiers, aspect, etc.)

Further Resources

  • Deaf people with linguistics training
  • ASL [language | grammar]
  • Gallaudet University [map]
    • 10th-12th grade summer ASL immersion [link]
    • Linguistics department [dept. | event blog]
    • Center for Continuing Studies teaches ASL courses for $230/credit (most classes are 3 credits) [dept.]
    • Theatre performances are captioned or voice-interpreted [link]
  • Books
    • Linguistics of American Sign Language by Valli et al. (ASL linguistics textbook)
    • Signing Naturally (ASL language textbook series)
    • The American Sign Language Handshape Dictionary by Tennant and Brown (dictionary)
    • For Hearing People Only by Moore and Levitan (deaf culture/language in context)
  • Apps
    • ASL Dictionary — 5000 signs [Android | iPhone]
    • ASL spelling game — beginner’s fingerspelling app [Android]
    • Marlee signs — phrases and words [iPhone]
  • Media
    • “Switched at Birth” (ABC Family)
    • YouTube has a variety of performances, lectures and vlogs

Linguistics and Amateur Radio

Screenshot of title slide

In noisy conditions on the airwaves, it can be hard to exchange information effectively. Rather than throwing more power or another $1000 of equipment at the problem, radio operators can often improve reception by adjusting the signal at its source: their articulatory organs. By enunciating, focusing on vowels, using recognized phonetic alphabets, and matching listeners’ expectations about pitch, amateur radio operators can effectively boost the quality of their signal.

To download the presentation in .pdf format, click on the image at right or the preceding link.

Context for Non-Hams

Relevance of Amateur Radio

Since the 1960s and 1970s, public interest in amateur radio has waned as reliable mobile communication has become available for minimal cost. Our dependence on such systems, however, has left us increasingly vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters. When the communication infrastructure is destroyed or severely overloaded (such as the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Marine Corps Marathon, and presidential inaugurations), hams continue to provide robust, decentralized communication.

Beyond practical uses, ham radio is also a hobby like any other, worthwhile for the enjoyment it brings.

“Noise” on the Air

The amateur radio bands do not always provide a perfect channel for communication. In especially bad conditions, trying to understand a message can be akin to listening to shouting from half a block away, on a windy day with city traffic. Although some atmospheric and noise conditions are uncontrollable, amateur radio operators do our best to produce cleanly intelligible signals, and we hone the skills required to understand content despite bad conditions.